Nevertheless, the organization found that a growing movement of both first-time and seasoned activists campaigning for social justice provides real hope of reversing the slide towards oppression.
The report, The State of the World’s Human Rights, covers 159 countries and delivers the most comprehensive analysis of the state of human rights in the world today.
“The transparently hateful move by the US government in January to ban entry to people from several Muslim-majority countries set the scene for a year in which leaders took the politics of hate to its most dangerous conclusion,” said Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International.
“We saw the ultimate consequence of a society encouraged to hate, scapegoat and fear minorities laid bare in the horrific military campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya people in Myanmar,” said Shetty.
World leaders abandon human rights, igniting protest movements globally
“The specters of hatred and fear now loom large in world affairs, and we have few governments standing up for human rights in these disturbing times. Instead, leaders such as al-Sisi, Duterte, Maduro, Putin, Trump and Xi are callously undermining the rights of millions,” said Shetty.
“The feeble response to crimes against humanity and war crimes from Myanmar to Iraq, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen underscored the lack of leadership on human rights. Governments are shamelessly turning the clock back on decades of hard-won protections.”
Signs of regression cited in the report include clampdowns on rights to protest in France, and attempts to roll back women’s rights from the USA to Russia and Poland.
With the report launching in Washington D.C., Amnesty International warned that President Trump’s backward steps on human rights are setting a dangerous precedent for other governments to follow.
“Defenders of human rights around the world can look to the people of the United States to stand with them, even where the US government has failed. As President Trump takes actions that violate human rights at home and abroad, activists from across the country remind us that the fight for universal human rights has always been waged and won by people in their communities,” said Margaret Huang, executive director of Amnesty International USA.
Regressive policies have inspired many people to join long-standing struggles, and the report details many important victories that human rights activists helped to secure. These include lifting the total abortion ban in Chile, achieving a step towards marriage equality in Taiwan and securing a landmark victory against forced evictions in Abuja, Nigeria.
A vast women’s march centered on the USA and with offshoots around the world showcased the growing influence of new social movements, as did the #MeToo phenomenon and Latin America’s “Ni Una Menos” – which denounced violence against women and girls.
“The indomitable spirit of the women leading powerful human rights movements reminds us that the desire for equality, dignity and justice will never be extinguished. There is a palpable sense that protest movements are on the rise globally. If governments stand against such movements, they will erode their legitimacy,” said Shetty.
Free speech takes on colossal importance in the renewed battle for human rights
The willingness of prominent leaders to tout “fake news” in order to manipulate public opinion, coupled with attacks on institutions that act as checks on power, show that free speech will be a key battle-ground for human rights this year, said Amnesty International.
“In 2018, we cannot take for granted that we will be free to gather together in protest or to criticize our governments. In fact, speaking out is becoming more dangerous,” said Shetty.
Hundreds of activists were killed last year as authorities sought to silence campaigners and muzzle the media, the report said. The biggest jailors of journalists were Turkey, Egypt and China – where Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo died after being imprisoned for criticizing the government. With governments shamelessly pursuing human rights activists, Amnesty International faced threats to its work in Hungary as well as the unprecedented arrests of its staff in Turkey.
“Governments think they can declare open season on human rights activists. They may shut down our newspapers, undermine judges and jail activists, but we refuse to be silenced. If the legendary Chinese activist Liu Xiaobo taught us anything, it is that we must speak truth to power precisely when it seems impossible to do so,” said Shetty.
Hate on the march as people targeted for their identity
The report emphasized the need for people to continue to speak out against the kind of hate-filled rhetoric seen in xenophobic slogans at a nationalist march in Warsaw, Poland, a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, USA, and sweeping crackdowns on LGBTI communities from Chechnya to Egypt.
This was underscored by the vilification of refugees and migrants from the very highest levels of government. While the Trump administration made headlines for its anti-refugee rhetoric, the report says they were not alone in pursuing xenophobic policies.
“Donald Trump’s policies may have marked a new era of human rights regression but they are not unique. If you look across from Australia to Hungary, leaders have long treated refugees and migrants as problems to be deflected, not as human beings with rights who deserve our compassion,” said Shetty.
Governments must address the burning injustices fueling protest movements
The report also notes that millions of people worldwide are facing increasingly precarious access to basic goods and services such as housing, food and health care. Amnesty International warned that unless governments tackle the underlying causes of poverty and inequality then there is huge potential for even greater unrest.
“Across the world people are being forced to live an intolerable existence because they are being denied access to adequate food, clean water, health care and basic shelter. If you take away these human rights, you breed despair with no limit or end. From Venezuela to Iran, we are witnessing the formidable spread of social discontent,” warned Shetty.
Instead of trying to silence people when they speak out, governments should address their concerns, said Amnesty International, and start by loosening restrictions on the media, civil society and other key checks on power.
“We are witnessing history in the making as people rise up and demand justice in greater numbers. If leaders fail to discern what is driving their people to protest, then this ultimately will be their own undoing. People have made it abundantly clear that they want human rights: the onus now is on governments to show that they are listening,” said Shetty.